Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story gives its subject a respect long overdue.
Glamour and beauty were synonymous with Austrian-American film actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-200). But as she quipped, “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story tells the story of the hidden genius that lay beneath that superficial image.
Lamarr was a skilled inventor, and during World War II helped create a frequency hopping system that was a precursor to GPS and WiFi technology. But her contributions went unrecognized until her later years and well after her death. Dean celebrates Lamarr’s intelligence and tenacity while also revealing a deeply complicated woman.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, she was a strikingly beautiful assimilated Austrian Jew who performed on film and stage as a teenager. With the 1933 film Ecstasy, the 19-year old gained notoriety with the first known simulated female orgasm on film. It was so scandalous that the Pope condemned the film, and the actress had a black mark on her career despite later claims that the filmmakers manipulated her. Lamarr would capitalize on her looks to leave war-torn Europe, getting the attention of producer Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a seven-year contract with MGM.
In Hollywood, Algiers(1933) made her an instant star, and her center-parted hair was widely copied–Lamarr was said to be the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman. However, she quickly got bored with the roles MGM gave her. Nurturing an interest in science and technology since she was a child, she began to spend her downtime on film sets creating gadgets.
With Allied Forces decimated by German U-Boats during World War II, Lamarr nearly quit Hollywood to focus on developing technology for the war effort. She met avant-garde music composer George Antheil, who was struck by her intellectual curiosity, and together they patented a “secret communications system” to help the Allies elude Nazi signal jamming. Through animated sequences based on Lamarr and Antheil’s notebooks, Dean demonstrates the technology of frequency hopping in an easily understandable way. But the U.S. Navy rejected the patent and hid it away due to its classified nature. Antheil returned to composing and Lamarr to acting.
Using footage from her film career and rare home movies, Dean contrasts these two different Lamarrs. Her private side, adventurous and unpretentious, never made it to the silver screen. She vied for independence by producing her own films (unprecedented for an actress at the time) and taking smaller parts in films that were more prestigious than her starring vehicles. But her instincts did not always pay off. Her career was marred with box-office flops, and she was divorced six times, never sustaining a significant relationship. She became tabloid fodder, falling to substance abuse and multiple plastic surgeries, and at one point hired a body double to take her place in divorce court. Yet interviews with Lamarr’s children and the late Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, humanize her, warts and all.
Her low point may have been the ghostwritten Ecstasy & Me, a salacious work of fiction in the guise of a tell-all autobiography that she signed off on without reading and later disowned. Asked by television host Merv Griffin if she thought the book hurt her image, she brusquely responded, “I don’t know what an image is!” But her image changed in 1990, when Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks contacted Lamarr for a story—not about her acting career, but her role in the development of frequency hopping. As heard in Meeks’ recorded interviews for the article, Lamarr is full of spirit, humor and most notably, a sense of relief in finally being able to tell her story.
Providing new insight into her pioneering work, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story gives its subject a respect long overdue. Her story is proof that it’s never too late to reclaim your image.